I often encourage parishioners and friends to study sacred Scriptures, and seek to derive wisdom from them. Of course the sacred texts to be studied are not only our Old Testament (the Hebrew Bible) and our New Testament, but other spiritual classics from various traditions. It seems to me that any human being, seeking to grow in genuine spiritual insight, would do well to study not only our present Bible, but such classics as the Dhammapada of the Buddha, the Bhagavad Gita from the vast Hindu tradition, the poems of Lao Tse, and surely the earliest texts of the Greek philosophical tradition, (such as the preserved sayings of Heracleitos and Parmenides), and the dialogues of Plato. There are more secondary religious writings, such as the Koran, or writings from within various cults, such as the Book of Mormon and Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, but in my opinion, given limited time and vast literature of high quality, I recommend giving careful attention to the Scriptures and spiritual classics just noted.
Spiritual reading, or divine reading, lectio divina, has a time-honored place in the spiritual life of the Chosen People and of Christians. Studying spiritual classics has a time-honored place among Hindus and Buddhists, and among students of philosophy in various cultures. One closely reads a spiritual classic, seeking to contact the living God in and through the text. Such spiritual reading does not assume that one has accepted an ideological belief in the “infallibility” of the text, or that it is of “divine origin,” in the sense of every word coming directly from God through the “sacred writer.” We can leave such beliefs to those who like to make unquestioned assumptions of dubious value. For example, I remember reading in the Catholic Encyclopedia or similar work many years ago that a leading Catholic theologian described the Bible as the “norma non normans.” Perhaps he kept the claim in Latin to make it sound more impressive, but it means that this theologian considered the Christian bible to be “the unmeasured measure,” or “the standard not subject to another standard.” I ﬁnd such a claim unnecessary and frankly absurd. The only unmeasured measure is that which by tradition we call “God.” I would call every other unquestioned standard of truth to be a form of idolatry, whether the claim is made for the Bible, the Koran, the Book of Mormon, or a self-professed “prophet’s” revelations in the night. Many people like certainty, and they want to have a text which is “true,” and a reliable source of wisdom. I prefer to think that the only utterly reliable source of truth is Truth itself—the I AM who spoke to Moses—and be content with much uncertainty in life. In the wise words of Plato, “God alone is wise,” so the best we can do is to be “lovers of wisdom,” not self-deluded possessors of wisdom. Those who think they are wise in effect make themselves fools, as the Apostle Paul warns: “Proclaiming themselves wise, they became fools….”
The search for divine wisdom requires that one is aware of his or her own ignorance, and limitations. One begins with questions, and follows them out. Or, one can take a respected and respectable text, such as the writings of Jeremiah, or a Gospel, or the Dhammapada of the Buddha, read it, and question the text as he or she proceeds. The alternative to thinking about what one reads, and questioning its truth, is simply to assume that everything it contains is true; and I suggest that such an assumption is unnecessary, and is in fact a hindrance to a genuine search for truth. To seek truth, as through reading a Scriptural text, one must be aware of one’s own ignorance, and be both respectful of the text, and willing to question it actively. The attitude of not questioning, of not thinking about what one reads, of not trying to discern what is true in the text, and what may be false or misleading, betrays a spiritual immaturity at best, and possibly just plain foolishness. From my years of dealing with Christians of various types, for example, I have long noted a widespread lack of interest in spiritual truth. The words of Jesus seem to be remembered as a saying, rather than lived: “Seek, and you will ﬁnd. Ask, and you shall receive.” Anyone who assumes that they have already attained wisdom, or sufﬁcient wisdom, is not prepared to gain from spiritual reading.
B. On the choice of a text to consider for this present exercise
The central prayer book of the Hebrew and Christian traditions is the collection of prayers and poems known as “The Book of Psalms.” Often I have encouraged parishioners and friends to study these psalms, and especially to ﬁnd the ones that most speak to them, and read them often. There are 150 psalms in our bibles, so nearly any adult or reasonably intelligent child could ﬁnd a few psalms that speak to him or her. Note that the psalms are so important in the Catholic tradition, that we read or sing from them at virtually every Mass celebrated, 365 days a year. And the psalms form the core of the “Liturgy of the Hours” prayed at various times daily by Catholic religious and clergy. At Mass we hear psalms as “responses” to the ﬁrst reading, which is nearly always from the Old Testament, or from the Acts of the Apostle during Easter season. As often as Catholics hear or sing the psalms at Mass, however, I do not often ﬁnd regular church-attending Catholics who make an effort to sit down and pray the psalms. Catholic religious and clergy are required to pray the psalms, and often Protestant ministers and the faithful do read and pray psalms. But to date I have known few Catholic lay people who have said to me, “I study and pray the psalms.” Why? Perhaps because Catholics were instructed for years “not to read the bible.” Many do not seem to want to make the effort.
For this particular meditation today, I have chosen Psalm 37, and I do so for several reasons. Psalm 37 is part of a sub-collection of the Psalter comprised of psalms 30-41. I have not found any biblical scholar who isolated this little collection, but in my years of reading the psalms, it seems to me that these 12 prayers are all related to one another, and probably come from the same author. Moreover, they are all wisdom psalms, in my opinion. For this reason I call this collection of 12 psalms the “Little Wisdom Psalter.” In the midst of it one ﬁnds Psalm 37, which in Hebrew is an acrostic poem, a style often found in Hebrew wisdom literature. An acrostic poem is one in which each verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Because of this particular literary device, one should not expect the poem to follow in a logical order, but to be more of a collection of wise sayings, more or less centering on one theme, and possibly with some development or elaboration as the poem unfolds. Hence, in meditating on Psalm 37, and in writing this brief essay, we need not consider every verse, but may select several or more verses for reﬂection. We will consider the ﬁrst third or so of the poem.
Another personal reason for choosing this psalm for our consideration is that my spiritual mentor in the monastery, Fr. Daniel Kirk, OSB, often quoted one or two verses of this psalm to me, and told me how much he appreciated its wisdom. So Psalm 37 came well recommended to my consideration since about 1984, or thirty years ago.
C. Selected Verses from Psalm 37, with non-scholarly commentary
We will draw from a standard English translation of Psalm 37, from the text as found in the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). My knowledge of Hebrew is very limited, and I have not consulted the Hebrew text in offering these notes. They are intended to show a style of spiritual reading, and to spur thinking about what one reads, and are not intended as a scholarly explication of the passage.
Note: I think it highly unlikely that this text was composed by King David. Why? King David ﬂourished around the year 1000 B.C., but verses in this psalm reﬂect life in Israel after the Babylonian captivity or exile, which ended in 539 B.C. The psalm is within the tradition of Jewish wisdom literature, which ﬂourished in the centuries immediately before Christ. Note that often in the Psalter, poems are ascribed to David, as books in the wisdom literature are ascribed to King Solomon, although they were composed many centuries after Solomon. Why the editors of the Psalms included this inscription, I do not know. What I notice is that every other psalm in the Little Wisdom Psalter, #30-41, is also assigned to David, often with additional phrases; the one exception to this rule is Psalm 33, which has no inscription in the Hebrew or in our English bible.
1-2. Do not fret because of the wicked,
do not be envious of wrongdoers.
For they will soon fade like the grass,
and wither like the green herb.
Comment: The ﬁrst thought here is good advice, that one should not be disturbed or envious of evildoers. Being troubled by evil doers is a common human experience, and hence worthily addressed by a sage. The second thought is more challenging. Yes, in time evildoers will fade and die, as do all creatures. But they may live longer and healthier lives than many who act justly. In this world, it is often the case that evildoers not only thrive, but that they get away with their crimes, perhaps being exonerated by those in high places. Dealing with “the insolence of ofﬁce and the law’s delay” is all-too-common a human experience.
3-4. Trust in the LORD and do good,
so you will live in the land and enjoy security.
Take delight in the LORD,
and He will give you the desires of your heart.
Comment: There is considerable wisdom here, and such a verse should be memorized and chewed on during the day, as a cow chews its cud. (Such an exercise is an important part of divine reading in the monastic tradition.) Only a fool would dispute with the advice, “Trust in the LORD and do good.” But one may wonder, “Which Lord? Who is meant here?” That question is fair. The psalmist would no doubt intend YHWH, Yahweh God, by our translation “Lord.” In the Christian tradition, the name “Lord” applies mainly to Jesus Christ, but it may also be used for the one God. In whom do you trust? In what, or in whom, do you place supreme conﬁdence? Who is your “Lord”? Do you perhaps trust only in yourself? Would that not be foolish?
Note here the claim that if one trusts in the LORD, then one will “live in the land and enjoy security.” Here we are seeing a fundamental stance of this psalmist, who seems to equate what he wishes to be true, for reality. It would not be difﬁcult, however, to ﬁnd many devout Jews in Israel today who live in the land but who surely do not enjoy security, as missiles are recklessly and wickedly ﬁred at them. Faith in God, real faith, is no guarantee that one will be protected from evils, or even from an untimely and horriﬁc death. The psalmist is presenting an ideal type, a wish, that simply does not meet with the truth of human experience.
“Take delight in the LORD, and He will give you the desires of your heart.” Often I call these words to mind. They are a beautiful promise, but alas, perhaps not always as true as one would wish. For the man or woman whose ﬁrst and foremost delight is the living God, they would indeed know much happiness and joy. But even loving God ﬁrst and foremost is no guarantee that one’s dearest friends, family members, prized possessions, would not be taken away, killed, destroyed. Then again, consider that one who truly delights in God above all else, even when they lose their dearest friend, still have God, and so have the ultimate source of peace and joy in their life. For those who truly seek to do God’s will faithfully, they may not gain or keep what they love in this passing world—as all must die—but in loving God, they love what God loves, and that includes every creature. Delighting in God as God is, not as we wish God were, one will be set free, little by little, from the sense of losing what one loves. For in God, nothing is lost. In words of Jesus from the Gospel of John, “In this world you will suffer. But be of good cheer, for I (the LORD) have overcome this world.” The same fundamental experience is found in those who through meditation and compassion, follow the way of the Buddha. One “crosses over” from the world of suffering into the bliss of Nibbana (Nirvana).
5-6. Commit your way to the LORD;
trust in Him, and He will act.
He will make your vindication shine like the light,
and the justice of your cause like the noonday.
Comment: Again, there is much wisdom here, but one must keep it balanced by the truth of practical experience. Through entrusting oneself to God, who may indeed discover that God acts, including in and through the one trusting—in and through you, as you trust. However, one must also keep in mind that “My ways are not your ways, nor are my thoughts your thoughts.” God’s way of acting may so surpass our understanding that we do not see it. Or again, God may act in ways that religious or good people never expected. Jesus was utterly outside and beyond the expectations of his own people—learned or simple, pious or sinners. On the other hand, if we truly seek to do God’s will, and apply ourselves to doing it to the best of our understanding, we often may indeed experience divine action.
As for making “your vindication shine like the light,” and so on, the psalmist has the rather naive expectation of many religious believers: If one is good, others will come to see one’s goodness. On the contrary: It often happens in the present life that the guilty get off “Scott free,” while the innocent are left suffering. One will be deeply disappointed if one expects virtue to always be rewarded in this world, and vice to be recognized as such and punished. For anyone who thinks that the justice of the good person shines forth “like the noonday,” as the psalmist says, he or she should meditate on the cross: the truly just man who leaves this world as a criminal, as one condemned to a most violent death by the powers that be. Such is often the experience of goodness here. Millions of innocent Jews were exterminated in Nazi death camps, and hundreds of thousands of Germans were killed by Allied bombs in World War II.
7. Be still before the LORD, and wait patiently for Him;
do not fret over those who prosper in their way,
over those who carry out evil devices.
Comment: We are reminded of the famous verse in a psalm, “Be still and know that I AM God.” “Be still before the LORD” is rich in overtones, ranging from the advice to wait for God to act, all the way to a simple formula for meditation: Keep the mind and heart still in the divine presence. Wait in silence. To this I would only add that fretting over anything is largely a waste of time, and fretting over those “who carry out evil devices” would only embitter one’s heart. The greater wisdom here is to keep one’s mind and heart centered on God, not on the evils of this present age. Unfortunately, “believers” of various stripes often fret over what they cannot in truth change.
8-9. Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath.
Do not fret—it leads only to evil.
For the wicked shall be cut off,
but those who wait for the LORD shall inherit the land.
Comment: Again, we ﬁnd the combination of practical wisdom with unrealistic or overly pious expectations. To “refrain from anger” is wise, especially when the anger smolders and burns as “wrath.” As it says in the Letter of James, “The wrath of man does not work the righteousness of God.” Human wrath is often unreasonable, irrational, extreme, destructive. And yet, there is a place for moderate, well-controlled anger, to motivate one to act for justice, and against injustice. The advice, “Do not fret—it leads only to evil,” is, in my opinion, sane and prudent advice for anyone, anytime. I have never known anyone who “frets,” who stews over matters, who gets all worked up, or simply depressed with worry, who achieves any good by those squandered emotions. “Fretting” is a neurotic, foolish way to handle one’s problems. And yet it is so common, that we do well to attend to such words often. In positive words, “Keep your soul in peace.” Or in the practical and sane words of Fr. Daniel Kirk, mentioned at the outset: “You have a choice: You can worry, or you can pray.”
Once again, however, such practical wisdom is joined with the naive belief that in this world, justice triumphs over evil. “The wicked shall be cut off.” Perhaps—but perhaps not. While it is true that Hitler’s wickedness did not thrive for long (publicly from 1923 until 1945), the amount of evil he accomplished, the sheer destruction of human lives and property, is beyond comprehension. Hitler was at last “cut off”—by a bullet he shot into his own throat. As for the promise or prediction that “those who wait for the LORD shall inherit the land,” from experience we can say: they may inherit or keep the land, or they may be uprooted by evil-doers. Waiting for the LORD is good, but waiting must not be used as an excuse not to act justly to the greatest extent possible. We have all met “religious people” who choose not to act, but just “wait for the LORD,” and so do little or nothing to right wrongs, or to tackle the hard problems of life. They
may “wait for the LORD” and keep traveling about, ever avoiding coming to terms with their real duties, here and now. There are many ways to hide from reality, and from doing what one ought to do.
D. Brief concluding note
Let this much sufﬁce for the present. I attempted to show a way to do spiritual reading: Not just absorbing every word or thought as if it were true, but thinking about its meaning, questioning its truth, and applying the words to one’s life.
It could be that the practice of questioning the truthfulness of a religious text, such as a bible, would surprise someone. And that points towards a recurring problem in contemporary Christianity: Many Christians seem to forget that they have obligations as human beings to “seek God and live,” and that seeking God means seeking the truth about God and His way. Uncritically to accept whatever one is told, or reads, as true is to place oneself outside the human condition and a basic moral obligation: “Seek the truth and do it.”